Monday, December 13, 2010

Travel Notes

It's a long haul between Northern/Central California and Central New Mexico, as I'm sure everyone who's driven it knows, and those few who might stumble on this little corner of CyberSpace have seen me write about a few times.

It's about 1100 miles each way, two days driving, one overnight stop (usually in Kingman, AZ), about 10 hours on the road in one segment, 11 hours in the other. The route I take is very historical for a lot of American migrants: down California's Central Valley on US Hwy 99 to Bakersfield, across the Tehachapis on California State Route 58 to Barstow, then on to NM on I-40 -- which parallels the old Route 66, the Mother Road, America's Main Street, and from which many segments of Route 66 are still easily accessible.

The longest stretch of the actual Route 66 I'm aware of that's still in use is now SR333 in New Mexico, also called Central Avenue (or just "Central") in some places. Although officially it only runs from Tijeras to Moriarty, about 27 miles or so, it actually runs all the way through Albuquerque, along Central to where it hooks up with I-40 at Paseo del Volcan, which is easily another 25 miles or so. And then I-40 is either on or directly parallel to the remainders of Route 66 most of the rest of the way west.

[As a personal side note, this trip was something of a struggle for me, much more so than any previous trip, and while in NM I had quite a scare as I was putting up Christmas lights. The episode passed, but it was a not-so-gentle reminder of, shall we say, mortality, my own in this case. What -- if anything -- to do about it is still being worked out.]

While driving, I thought a good deal about what sort of connections I've had to this road since I was an infant. In an earlier post I wrote that when I left Iowa where I was born, it was in the backseat of a 1942 Packard driven hellbent for leather westward, much of the trip -- at least from St. Louis on -- was on Route 66. As far as I know -- and I can't be absolutely certain at this point, it was many years ago after all, and I wasn't taking notes at the time (heh) -- it was pretty much the route from St. Louis, through Missouri, Oklahoma, across the top of Texas, through New Mexico, Arizona and the Mojave Desert in California, to Barstow, then up to Bakersfield, and finally over to the Coast on what is now the 46, taking the 101 south to Santa Maria. But the route could have almost as easily followed Route 66 through Los Angeles and picked up the 101 from Pasadena or wherever. In fact, given some of the household moves when I was a child, from Santa Maria to various places in the Los Angeles Basin along what was still the Route 66 route, I highly suspect that it was that route that got us to the Central Coast, not the upper one through Bakersfield.

A note on Highway names: In Southern California it is the custom to refer to all freeways and numbered highways as "The" -- whatever. For example, Interstate 40 is called "The 40," and Highway 101 up the coast is called "The 101." In Northern California, highways are called by their number or other designation without "The", so for example, one travels on "99" up and down the Valley, or on "I-5" on the West Side. Cross over into Arizona, and you call the northern Interstate "I-40", without "The", much the way Northern Californians refer to their highways, but when you get to New Mexico, things get a little hinky. You may refer to the Interstates as "I-40" or "I-25" or just "40" and "25." Or you may say the cardinal directions, "north and south," "east and west" "on the Interstate", and that's sufficient to know which one is being referred to, unless you're in Las Cruses, and I'm not sure what they say there, since I-10 picks up in Las Cruses for the southern route west.

State highways in New Mexico are called whatever people want to call them, including the numbers they have now, numbers they used to have, or names that they were once called or are currently known by.

For example, SR333 used to be Route 66, and some people still call it that. It's also called "Central." SR550 used to be 44W, and some people still call it that. SR14 is also called "The Turquoise Trail," and so on, but whatever the case, one is just expected to know most or all of the variations on highway names and designations in New Mexico, and one of the surest signs you're an outlander is if you don't, or if you're confused about it. I still get confused, though I'm learning. Ha ha.

So I was thinking as I was driving along during this last trip that Route 66 was the way I got to California in the first place, and it's the way I've been trying to leave it for some years now, so far without complete success. Parts of the route still preserve some of what used to be, but much of the mythology of Route 66 makes it into much more than it ever was back in the day. It was just a road. To get from place to place. Back before there were freeways.

Of course it brought all those refugees from Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl to California when time was. And that trek was a trial, often dismal and heartbreaking, and not just because the road was a challenge. People were a challenge. Especially eager to challenge refugees.

Road travel was not easy in this country until the advent of the Interstate Highway System during the Eisenhower administration, and the Interstate system was advocated at the time on the basis of Defense. They would be roads that would make it easy to transport military materiel and personnel when the dreaded Soviets invaded. Or whatever. The pre-Interstate system was a patchwork at best, and in many places, it was lousy, run down or difficult to get through without breakdown or harassment. The notion that Route 66 was somehow this grand Main Street through the country, so very pleasant and appealing every inch of the way, with happy merchants eager to serve their traveling customers is just silly. It wasn't like that. In fact, it was rough.

But then, all roads and highways in this country were essentially rough back in those days, and it really was not easy to get goods and people from place to place by road. The alternative, of course, was the train, and that was how most people and goods got from place to place, not by road.

Along the highway route today there are numerous trains, almost all freight trains, loaded down with shipping containers in an endless -- and colorful -- stream, going this way and that, taking some of the shipping burden off the Interstate, but still the Interstate highways are dominated by truckers. Before the economic crash, trucks were so pervasive on the Interstates and State Highways, it was often difficult or impossible to maneuver through or around them. There is still a predominance of truck traffic, and in many areas, especially in California, the trucks have nearly destroyed the Interstate highways and other roads. There are places in Arizona where the Interstate has been allowed to deteriorate significantly, but for the most part, it still isn't as bad there as it is nearly everywhere in California. In New Mexico, on the other hand, much of the Interstate highway system (and quite a few sections of state highway) has been rebuilt from the ground up in the past few years. It's mostly in very good shape, and the completion of reconstruction I-40 and most of I-25 in and around Albuquerque has made an astonishing improvement in road travel through there, one that is visually striking almost every mile of the way. The I-40/I-25 interchange in Albuquerque (called "The Big I") is stunning, both functionally and visually. It is one of the easiest big interchanges to navigate I've seen (well, except when parts of it are shut down for various reasons). And visually, it borders on stupendous. I won't go so far as to say it is "beautiful," but for what it is, it ain't bad.

But then, practically every overpass on the Interstates in Albuquerque is a work of art, meant to appeal to the aesthetic senses of drivers. Think about that. Here's a road that's just supposed to get you from place to place efficiently, and everywhere along the way through Albuquerque, there's Art, at least an attempt at Beauty, and some of it is really intriguing stuff. Besides which it is laid out well, the signage is good, and while some of the drivers are wild, you can generally get where you need to go without too much of a struggle.

There is no other city on the route I take that has put so much care into the appearance and the functionality of the Interstates that pass through. Albuquerque is in a class by itself.

And in Albuquerque, too, the legendary Route 66 lives on in all kinds of ways along Central Avenue. It is still the main surface street through town, and much of what once was there is still there as if little or nothing had changed. It's still very busy, littered with roadside attractions and city services (though many of the motels and restaurants that catered to tourists are gone there has been an effort to preserve some indications of them, and in some cases the actual sites and buildings as well). But Central is a vibrant commercial street; things come and go. There is little permanence, but there is a lot of history, from the Old Town Plaza (c.1706) to the University of New Mexico, and everything in between, including Downtown.

Farther out along Central/66 to the east, a lot of the stops and attractions are gone, but some of them are still there, still as vital as ever, and for the most part they don't cater to tourists at all, or only peripherally. They are local businesses, with a largely local clientele, and if by chance a Route 66 aficionado happens by, that's fine, if not, that's fine, too!

So many people, including so many people I care a lot about, have made the trek west -- or in some cases east -- along the storied Route 66 and its successors. Despite all the changes there's a strong sense of ...stability to be gained from what's been preserved along the way, and from what so many of the travelers or their descendants have become.

One day, though, I'll have to do some riffs on what it was like in the backseat of that 1942 Packard. I don't remember the trip west specifically (but I still carry some simple memories of the car and trips made in it) but I could go on at some length about that backseat. It became almost like another room in my home. But that's a whole other story for another time.

Then there are all the stories of Pismo Beach I could tell.


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